A Minute with Miles

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How did the piano get its name? Why can’t you “reach” a crescendo? Who invented opera—and why—and how do you pronounce “Handel”? These and countless other classical music questions are answered on South Carolina Public Radio’s A Minute with Miles. Hosted by longtime NPR commentator Miles Hoffman, the segments inform and entertain as they provide illuminating 60-second flights through the world of classical music. 

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

If you’d like a remarkable example of the genius of Leonard Bernstein, I recommend that you listen – or listen again – to the song “Cool,” from West Side Story. Bernstein needed a song for the character Riff to sing to build up the tension before the gang fight between the Jets and the Sharks.

Better Ears

Jul 31, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Every musician will tell you that there are some musicians who just seem to have better ears than others do. We’re really talking about the brain, rather than the actual organ of hearing, but in any case from the same sounds others hear, some people are able to extract more information, and they’re able both to process and to store that information faster, more accurately, and more efficiently. Yesterday I talked about ear training courses for musicians, and rigorous training can certainly lead to the development of great skills in hearing, great refinements.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

One of the reasons Mozart’s operas seem so profound to us is because they’re so true to life, and perhaps especially true to life’s complexities and contradictions. Take the character of Don Giovanni. He’s introduced to us having committed a sexual assault, which he follows by killing someone. But Mozart doesn’t make him a cartoon villain, and in fact he does the opposite: he makes him appealing—he gives him beautiful music to sing. But here’s what’s so fascinating – and such a stroke of genius on Mozart’s part: Every beautiful note Don Giovanni sings is a lie!

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The tools and techniques of conducting have changed a great deal over the centuries. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the people who led musical performances, especially vocal performances, usually simply waved their hands in the air to indicate the shape and speed of melodies – although sometimes they also held a long wooden staff in one hand and marked beats with it.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

One of the common dangers of studying composers’ lives is finding out that some of the people whose music we love and admire turn out to have been very unadmirable human beings. Exhibit A in this category is usually Richard Wagner, an egomaniac and anti-semite, among other things, but a man who wrote lots of exquisitely beautiful music. What are we to make of such jarring disjunctions? Should we throw out the music with the maniac? I don’t have the answer.

Composers' Lives

Jul 27, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Here’s a question: Should we really care about the personal lives of the composers we admire? When we don’t know anything about their lives, we certainly don’t care. How many of us know a great deal about Monteverdi, or Palestrina? Or even Bach, or Beethoven? What we care about is the music. But still, we’re curious, especially about composers whose work has meant a great deal to us, work that has enriched our lives.

Ear Training

Jul 24, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Ears can be trained. Which is why every music school in the world offers ear-training courses. I suppose it should go without saying, but for musicians the ability to recognize fine distinctions among sounds is crucial. And what musicians are trained to do is to recognize very specific kinds of information in sounds, to recognize relationships and patterns and to be able to reproduce them. They do this through practice and memorization. The distance in pitch between any two notes, for example, is called an interval.

What Will Last

Jul 23, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Perhaps you’ve thought about this: Bach and Mozart died over two hundred years ago – – Is there anybody alive today whose music will be played two hundred years from now? It’s a tricky question. There are contemporary composers whose music I like and admire, but I certainly wouldn’t bet my life on predicting their immortality. When it comes to the great composers of the past, we’re lucky: history has done the winnowing for us.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

I wonder what today’s voice teachers would think of the composer Gioacchino Rossini’s ideas for a vocal training curriculum. According to Rossini, learning the art of bel canto, or “beautiful singing,” should begin with many months of soundless exercises, starting no later than the age of twelve.

Practicing

Jul 21, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

When I was a little boy just starting violin lessons, my teacher’s instructions were that I should practice a half hour every day. For a six-year-old this seemed an enormous load. I liked the violin… but a whole half hour, every day? Usually I would start, and then run to my mother every five minutes asking, “Is it a half hour yet?” And even later, when I started on the road to a career in music, practicing remained a duty, something I knew I had to do even if I would rather have been doing something else.  And now?

Indispensible Three

Jul 20, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

It’s always fun to propose lists of the “ten best” of something – or the ten worst of something, for that matter. But when it comes to thinking about composers of classical music, there’s a word I like better than “best,” and that word is indispensable. And the number I have in mind isn’t ten, but rather three. Which three composers are indispensable to any account of those who have made the greatest contributions to the living repertoire of classical music? And not as a matter of personal taste, but as a matter of judgment.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

I’ve spoken about this before, but the subject seems to come up a lot, so why not go over it again: in America, 99.9 per cent of the people who play the flute for a living call themselves flutists, not flautists. That’s not a scientific number, but I think it’s pretty accurate. In any case, I’ve never heard any American flute playing colleague refer to herself as anything but a flutist, so please don’t ever worry about sounding uncultured or unsophisticated if that’s the term you use. And where does the word “flautist” come from, anyway?

Modern Music

Jul 16, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

There are many people who say they love classical music, but not “that modern stuff.” What’s interesting is that some of “that modern stuff” is well over a hundred years old. Sometimes the term “modern” is just a stand-in for “unfamiliar,” and it’s true that some listeners have no appetite or patience for music that’s unfamiliar, and aren’t even willing to give it a try. That may be their loss… but then again we’re all entitled to stick to what we know and love. I think that more often, though, what people mean by “modern stuff” is simply music that doesn’t seem to make sense.

Mesmer

Jul 15, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

If you explore the history of psychotherapy, you’ll come upon the name Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer was born in Germany in 1734, and it was Mesmer who invented the term “animal magnetism,” which is what he called the mysterious force, or fluid, that flowed through his own body and that he could redirect for therapeutic purposes. Before you laugh, you should know that Mesmer had many therapeutic successes and many disciples, and for a period in his life he was rich and famous. And it’s from Mesmer’s name that we get the word “mesmerize.” What does this have to do with music?

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

The most common tempo markings in music are words like allegro, adagio, and andante. But often composers indicate expression along with tempo, and this is when foreign-language dictionaries can come in handy. I could make a long list of interesting tempo and expression markings, but here are two of my favorites: Rasendes Zeitmass, Wild, Tonschönheit is nebensache: Racing tempo, Wild, Beauty of tone is irrelevant. That’s Paul Hindemith’s marking for the fourth movement of his Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 25, No. 1.

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